By Joseph Burley
As we all know, the season of Advent has a “mid-point celebration,” known as Gaudete Sunday. The season of Lent has a similar celebration of the half-way point in Laetare Sunday. Based on an amazing confluence of traditions that would seem to be pre-ordained, it turns out that the church liturgical calendar has an additional suitable three-day mid-point celebration of light and warmth for the cold, dark season of winter – what I call the “Triduum of Fire!”
Candlemas replaces the “Festival of Lights”
The tradition of Candlemas in rooted in ancient pagan, Jewish and Christian traditions celebrating light and fire.
The use of lights as an adjunct to worship goes back to the beginning of the Church, and even farther. Among the Jews and in many pagan rites, the use of lights had long been looked at as appropriate in connection in public homage to their God or gods. It is probable that among Christians they were first employed simply to dispel darkness, when the sacred mysteries were celebrated before dawn, as was the custom, or in the gloom of the catacombs; but the beautiful symbolism of their use was soon recognized by the writer’s of the early Church.Source
This date conveniently marks the midpoint of winter, halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. This period of darkness (short daylight) is referenced by the blindness of Simeon, who waited patiently in the temple many years. (Luke 2: 25-35) The last words of Simeon: “a Light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel” are a prophecy that point us to the mission of Christ revealed to us through the mystery of Lent and Easter.
According to the mystic Ven. Mary of Agreda in City of God (Vol. II), the Holy Family took two candles into the temple in addition to the two turtledoves to be sacrificed.
The Use of Candles In Liturgy Began in the 4th Century
As described by New Advent Encyclopedia, various Christian liturgical traditions using candles appear to have begun in about the 4th century and rituals associated with the blessing of candles became commonplace in the Western Church in about the 11th century.
Some suggest that this was arrived at as a Christian adaptation of pagan traditions pertaining to the worship of fire and use of candles.
It was explained that now Jesus is the light of the world brought into the temple, and the fire itself is no longer worshiped.
The Relationship Between the Flame of St Brigid & The Irish Goddess Brigit
Candlemas is conveniently bracketed by two other days that happen to be liturgically related to the celebration of fire.
February 1 is the Feast of St. Brigid of Kildare. Although not celebrated in the 1962 liturgy (it is the Feast of St Ignatius), St Bridgid is dear to many Irish Catholics.
St Brigid came to be associated with candles and fire, specifically perpetual flame. This was due to the efforts to Christianize the pagan celebration of Brigid, the Celtic goddess of fire by redirecting the celebration and commemoration to St. Brigid by her followers.
When St. Brigid died in 525 AD, her sisters kept a fire burning at her convent, which burned for centuries until A.D. 1220. The fire would appear to be related to early traditions of Irish Christians that Christianized pagan ritual uses of fire.
“A sacred fire burned in Kildare reaching back into pre-Christian times. Scholars suggest that priestesses used to gather on the hill of Kildare to tend their ritual fires while invoking a goddess named Brigid to protect their herds and to provide a fruitful harvest. “Lighting the Perpetual Flame of Brigid (A brief history of the flame)
It was re-lit and burned for 400 years, when the effects of the Protestant “Reformation” extinguished it again.
In 2006, her home town of Kildare decided to honor her and this tradition by keeping a perpetual flame in the town square. St. Brigid’s Feast is therefore associated with fire.
Pure Beeswax Candles
St. Blaise Keeps the Candlelight Theme Going
On the day following Candlemas, is the Feast of St. Blaise, most notably recalled with its blessing of the throats with two crossed candles.
This tradition dates back to the imprisoned Saint being given candles to light his dark prison cell by a woman who was the beneficiary of one of his miracles.
St. Blaise was martyred by beheading on February 3, 316 AD after refusing to make sacrifices to pagan idols. Commemoration of his feast day and the use of candles traces back to at least the 16th century.
At one time the candles were lit and crossed above the head, recalling the Holy Spirit being represented by tongues of fire. However, more commonly the candles are unlit and crossed at the person’s throat for obvious reasons!
The “Triduum” Commemoration of Fire and Light
These three feast days make for a three-day period associated with light and fire, making it unofficially a “Candelight Triduum,” a most fitting conclusion to the Christmastide season.
This three day period seems suitably ordered as a contemplation and celebration of the Trinity.
The perpetual flame recalls the perpetual fire of Solomon’s Temple referenced in the OT, which represented and symbolized God.
The Hebrew Scriptures prescribed that “The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out” (Leviticus 6:5).
This was a continuation of God appearing to Moses in a Bush that did not burn up (Exodus 3:2) and later as a pillar of fire at night (Exodus 13:21-22).
Jews would understand God being equated to fire from Deuteronomy 4:24 (“..the Lord thy God is a consuming fire…”).
This tradition of a perpetual flame has been continued, as we indicate the presence of the Blessed Sacrament by a slow-burning candle.
Beeswax, Our Lady & The Trinity
A burning candle represents Christ.
According to NewAdvent.org,
Where possible, the Church urges the use of most precious and pure beeswax, which recalls the purity the of Our Lord and His mother.
This is reflected in the natural and most desirable properties of beeswax candles: very slow and clean burning.
God’s design of beeswax is no accident or coincidence:
“The worker bees who gather the pure nectar of flowers don’t participate in the reproduction of the species. They are solely responsible for gathering the nectar and feeding the baby bees. Reproduction is left to the queen bee and drone bees. Because virgin worker bees dedicate their lives to the creation of the wax and the nourishment of the hive, these bees have come to represent Our Lady, the Virgin mother who gave birth to the pure flesh of Christ, with Christ’s pure flesh being symbolized by the pure beeswax. What a detailed, beautiful symbol of this reality!”Getfed.com
The use of unlit candles to bring about healing and the holding of candles about one’s head would therefore be a suitable symbol of the Holy Spirit.
We Don’t Tire Easily of Christmas!
Being brazenly unapologetic and continuing to flout our observance of Christmas until February 2 or 3 is a necessary means of witnessing our faith.
Celebrating the “Triduum of Fire” is one additional way to witness to the world and add spiritual interest to a lull in our calendar before Valentines Day and Lent begins.
Didn’t get those Christmas decorations down by February 3?
Historically some religious celebrated Candlemas as an Octave , extending things until February 9 and the Feast of the Holy Childhood of Our Divine Lord on February 13th gives us yet again one last final extension!
Blessed Candlemas & Triduum of Fire!